“Stick your neck out” Zelma Lazarus once told me during a raucous Christmas party at her Carter Road apartment. “You have nothing to lose.”
I was all of 16 years old and heady from the wine that was flowing around her sunny, windswept apartment on the ninth floor of a Mumbai highrise with an unobstructed view of the Arabian Sea, save for some coconut palm trees that she had planted in the garden that fronted the building decades ago. They were, and still are, the tallest palms I have ever seen. I was accompanying my mother, a close friend and long-time associate of Lazarus.
We were talking about my plans once I graduated from high school. She wanted me to get involved with her brainchild, the Lifeline Express, a hospital train that provided emergency medical care in remote and underserved regions of the country. The Lifeline Express or Jeevan Rekha, as it was known locally, was a joint initiative of Indian Railways, the Health Ministry and Impact India Foundation, an organisation that Lazarus founded in 1983 with active support from the United Nations Development Program, World Health Organisation, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and most prominently, the Tata group.
The story of how the Lifeline Express came into being has been told before, but deserves to be told one more time. One fine day, Lazarus landed up at the office of Railway Minister George Fernandes, demanding to see him. She was informed that he did not have the time and that she would need to seek an official appointment. She came back again the next day and was given the same excuse.
She returned every day for the whole week, until one day the minister stepped out of his office and asked impatiently what she wanted. “I want a train,” she replied tersely, and then went on to describe her ambitious project. Impressed by petite lady with the lilting voice and self-assured demeanour, the minister meekly nodded his head and agreed to back her. Thus was born the Lifeline Express.
From its maiden journey on July 16, 1991, until January 12, 2022, when Lazrus breathed her last, the Lifeline Express has treated close to a million disabled people, carrying out nearly 1.5 lakh surgeries in 130 districts across 20 states, utilising the services of over 200,000 volunteer surgeons. They have treated patients with epilepsy, cancer of the mouth, breast and cervix, cleft palates, cataracts, orthopaedic problems, and heart disease.
Lazarus’s fabled medical train has inspired similar projects in South Africa, China, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. In Bangladesh, Impact launched a hospital boat in the country as it was easier to reach people via the country’s extensive waterways rather than its sparse rail networks.
Born in Belgaum, into an Anglo-Indian family of modest means, Zelma Lazarus decided to stay back in India, unlike her siblings, who had all moved to the UK. Fiercely loyal to the country of her birth, she surrendered her British passport in favour of Indian citizenship and in due course rose to a senior position in Voltas, from her humble beginnings as a secretary. A few years later, she gave up her cushy job at Voltas to launch Impact India, and the rest, as they say, is history.
During the course of her work with Impact, Lazarus received a clutch of awards from the United Nations and other institutions, and interacted with a host of dignitaries, including Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, George Bush, Prince Charles and Diana, several Nobel laureates and a series of UN Secretary Generals. Yet she remained one of the most accessible and down to earth people I have known.
“There’s always a place for you here,” she would tell me every time we spoke. We spent many an evening on her lovely verandah, drinking her favourite Scotch, chatting with the eclectic group of visitors who frequented her salon, gazing out at the sun dipping slowly into the glittering expanse of the Arabian Sea.
Lazarus’s breakfasts and dinners were legendary, not only because of the guests in attendance, but also the delicious cuisine, much of which was personally prepared by her. I had the good fortune to sample her signature creations including her chicken cacciatore served with Spanish rice, different varieties of cheesecake, and her famous Christmas cake, the best I have ever tasted.
An extraordinary life
The last time I met Lazarus was a couple of years ago at the Otters Club in Bandra, where she had hosted a lunch for our family. By then she was already in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease, but was still in control of most of her faculties. As time went by, the cognitive decline worsened and she spent most of her time indoors with her cook and her caretaker, a middle-aged Parsi lady.
Her memory faded rapidly and she could barely remember the names and faces of people she had known and loved all her life. Yet, when I spoke to her one last time on her 86th birthday, I heard the familiar lilting voice from the other end, “When are you coming? There’s always a place for you here.”
When Lazarus’s extraordinary life came to an end, due to Covid restrictions, her funeral service was a small and intimate affair, with only about 20 people in attendance, including her daughter Esther Lazarus Marfatia, son Ewart Lazarus, daughter-in-law Padma Chowgule Lazarus and grandson Ishaan Lazarus.
Condolences poured in from around the world. Everyone who had the good fortune of knowing her described how she had touched their hearts and in many cases helped turn their lives around.
During the prayer service, Padma Chowgule Lazarus read out the eulogy, concluding with a passage from Zelma Lazarus’s most beloved author, the American transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”
Zelma Lazarus quietly went about her life’s work of leaving the world a better place than she found it, without hankering for publicity or fame, and in doing so, succeeded immeasurably in all the ways that it truly counts.
Vikram Zutshi is a filmmaker, author and photojournalist.